Piping Up on Pot – Possibility of Legalizing Medical Marijuana Gets East Orlando Talking

The first time Marlene Spiegel was told she had breast cancer, she could handle it. But when the doctor told her the lumpectomy was unsuccessful, she only drove a block from his office before she pulled over and broke down into tears.

It wasn’t fear of cancer that made her cry – she’d already survived a brown recluse spider bite that nearly took her right leg and a collision with a drunk driver, which left her with no motion in her left shoulder. Rather, it was telling her family, who she knew was unpacking the groceries at home, that the cancer wasn’t gone, that they’d have to fight again.

“I got the results and had to come home and tell my family, ‘They’re going to have to start all over again’,” Spiegel says. “That was probably the hardest point for me because my family, I’m not sure if they totally believed it, that it would be ok.”

Spiegel never had to undergo chemotherapy or radiation. A single mastectomy has left her cancer free for 10 years. She might not have benefited from the current push to legalize medical marijuana in the state of Florida, but Spiegel says that if it can help people who are dealing with life-threatening diseases, it should be accessible.

“I don’t care if it’s legal or not legal but if it’s going to help people, then people should have access to it. I would feel that way even if I was not a cancer survivor,” says the Avalon Park resident. “There are [other pain medications] that are legal that are worse.”

People United for Medical Marijuana has been working for almost a year to collect the 683,149 signatures needed to get an amendment to legalize medical marijuana on the 2014 Florida election ballot. So far, 20 states, plus the District of Columbia, have legalized the substance.

How Do Americans Feel About Marijuana?

+ 51% of Americans think that marijuana should be illegal.

+ 77% of Americans support allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for serious medical conditions.

+ 3 in 10 Americans believe that marijuana currently being bought in the country under state-authorized medical marijuana programs is being used the way it has been authorized: for alleviating suffering from serious medical conditions.

Source: CBS News Poll – October 2011

Whether they gain the signatures or not – they have more than 500,000 so far and have to collect the rest by February – the Florida Supreme Court has until April 1 to decide whether the amendment is constitutional. The matter ended up in court after the Florida Attorney General’s office raised concerns that the amendment’s language could make it too easy for people to take advantage. Specifically, stating that only those with a “debilitating disease” will be approved to use the substance in the ballot summary but then using the term “debilitating medical condition” in the amendment body.

“The operative word is ‘debilitating’,” says People United Campaign Manager Ben Pollara. “We trust the court, we trust [People United attorney] John Mills, our leader. Most of the arguments debated in the court were things we discussed in the drafting process and at nauseam until the court hearing [on Dec. 11]. We addressed the court’s questions in a clear and concise way.”

Pollara says that even though they’ve gotten push back on this initiative from Tallahassee, they’ve experienced nothing but positive feedback from Floridians.

“We get dozens of emails every day from people saying [medical marijuana] helped them – people who used to take 20 Percocets a day and now they don’t have to,” he says. “We hear from people who went through cancer treatment and desperately wanted to use marijuana but couldn’t because they didn’t want to be a criminal.”

But Pollara says he was also surprised by the people who reached out to the campaign, which he started a year ago. He expected to hear from cancer and AIDS patients but was floored when parents of epileptic children, having hundreds of seizures a day, contacted him, saying that taking cannabis oil was the only thing that’s allowed their children to live a normal life.

“The only people’s minds who haven’t been changed are the politicians in Florida,” Pollara says.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that 82 percent of Floridians are in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. In downtown Avalon Park, residents walking the streets were asked if they’d approve such a move.

“Yeah, that’d be fine,” says Avalon resident John Elias. “Because if there’s a valid need and it helps alleviate their suffering, I think that’d be fine.

“If someone is really sick and in a lot of pain and it could help them, why not?” Asked Beverly Krasno, also of Avalon.

“If they’re strict about it, yeah sure,” says Mike Markovich. “If it’s regulated and taxed, it could be good for the state. I don’t see any negative effects. It doesn’t kill people like alcohol or cigarettes.”

Spiegel also says there’d have to be some strict regulations and close state eyeballing in order for her to be fully on board.

She also worries whether the state has the money to finance the extra personnel it would require to keep the substance in the right hands and grown and distributed properly. The amendment would put the state’s Department of Health in charge of overseeing growth of the substance as well as distribution, making sure it’s going only to those who qualify.

By Megan Stokes

In reporting for this article, many organizations and businesses, such as the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida and the Orlando Regional Medical Center declined comment.